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USDA Secretary mulls waivers for pork plants forced to use slower line speeds

The US Department of Agriculture is working on a proposal for a waiver system for hog plants forced by a federal court to slow processing lines, Secretary Tom Vilsack said on 7 October.

8 October 2021, at 8:08am

Reuters reports that waivers to allow plants to speed up processing lines again could renew concerns about worker safety but boost profits for pork companies and farmers. Vilsack did not specify exactly what the waivers would do.

A federal judge in March ruled against a Trump administration rule that allowed pork plants to run slaughter lines without speed limits, as long as they prevented fecal contamination and minimize bacteria.

A lawsuit brought against USDA by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union had challenged the 2019 rule over worker safety concerns.

The USDA did not appeal the ruling under the Biden Administration. However, the agency is now focused on finding ways "to allow adequate processing but to do so without sacrificing workers' safety and health," Vilsack said at a Congressional hearing. He said USDA is working with the pork industry and workers' representatives.

Seaboard Foods, the second-biggest US pig producer, sped up its Guymon, Oklahoma, pork plant last year, becoming the first company to operate under the 2019 rule. Workers told Reuters the faster line speeds increased injuries at the plant.

Prior to the rule change, six other US pork plants had surpassed previous speed limits with special USDA permission, according to agency documents.

One plant, Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota, generated a proposal that USDA could use to create the structure for new waivers for facilities that slowed down, Vilsack said.

The USDA has said it wants to review waiver criteria to "get the line speeds back up and running" in talks with the pork industry, US Representative Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota, whose district includes Quality Pork Processors, said at the hearing.

The USDA did not respond to a request for details, and Quality Pork Processors did not respond to requests for comment.

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